Scientists at the universities of Nottingham, Birmingham and Bath say the secret is to commit yourself to three short bursts of highly intense exercise for 30 seconds each, with short rest periods between, in less than five minutes.
They claim early results are ground-breaking and may lead to conventional medical textbooks on exercise being torn up. Instead of sweating for hours, scientists say we should hurl ourselves around on an exercise bike or rowing machine — or even just run rapidly up and down the stairs at home.
After half a minute of wild exertion, we can collapse red-faced for 60 seconds, then do it all again. Three bouts like that means your exercise requirement for that session is sorted.
Late last year, the scientific team behind this regime launched a large-scale trial involving 300 volunteers to fully test their system. It could be just the tonic for couch-potato Britain.
For despite constant nagging from government and health professionals, the vast majority of us still don’t follow the official NHS advice to do at least 30 minutes of brisk exercise five times a week, plus two sessions of muscle-strengthening exercise such as weight-training, push-ups or heavy gardening.
More than 60 per cent of men and 70 per cent of women admit that they don’t manage that. Lack of time is our most common excuse.
As a result, millions of Britons suffer early death and unnecessary disability due to lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.
But the answer for many could be quick and simple.
The ongoing study is led by leading exercise expert Jamie Timmons, a professor of systems biology. The team call their system High Intensity Impact Training (HIIT).
So far, their tests on hundreds of unfit middle-aged volunteers in Britain and Canada over the past eight years have shown those three minutes of exercise a week deliver the same significant health improvements as can be achieved through hours in the gym or on the running track.
But scientists do not yet entirely understand why the short-burst exercise regime so profoundly boosts volunteers’ stamina and the fitness of their lungs, heart and blood vessels.
‘The truthful answer is we do not fully understand this,’ says Professor Timmons. ‘But a growing body of independent research shows this is the case and that the textbook explanation of the science of exercise requires revision.’
As for weight loss, the results from conventional long hours of exercise regimes often prove disappointing.
Typically, exercisers get themselves into trouble by eating more than they do normally because strenuous gym sessions leave them ravenous.
Brief, high-intensity exercise does not stimulate appetite as much, because it demands far less energy expenditure, so participants in the trial don’t suffer the same cravings.
What’s more, it appears to do something even more beneficial, according to Professor Timmons.
‘We have found that people feel their appetites are suppressed,’ he says. ‘We should have the final evidence for this next year.’
The regime should also raise people’s metabolic rates after they stop exercising, as it builds muscle — and this tissue makes metabolisms run faster. In turn, this stimulates the breakdown of fat and burns calories.
Timmons’ team also speculates that high-intensity training uses far more muscle tissue than aerobic exercise.
They say: ‘Cycling really vigorously uses not just the leg muscles, but also the upper body including arms and shoulders, so 80 per cent of the body’s muscle cells can be activated, compared to 20 to 40 per cent for walking or moderate intensity jogging or cycling.’
It will be about two years, though, before the British scientists publish their full findings as part of a Europe-wide study. In the meantime, they point out: ‘You don’t need a scientific explanation to enjoy the benefits.’
The team’s theories about short-burst exercise are increasingly supported by other research.
More at: Is three minutes a week of exercise all you need to get fit? Scientists say ideal fitness regime involves intense bursts of activity